*this write-up might contain spoilers if you consider the history books as such*
Winter, 1880. A train carries a group of New York fat cats to a field in the depths of the New Jersey countryside. Shrouded by darkness, a lone figure emerges – Thomas Alva Edison, illuminated only by the faint glow of his trademark cigar. Suddenly a switch is flicked and the landscape is bathed in the glow of row upon row of outsized bulbs. Using his direct current system, the Wizard of Menlo Park has, seemingly, cast his greatest spell yet.
Three hundred or so miles to the west, rival industrialist George Westinghouse hears of Edison’s breakthrough in his Pittsburgh mansion, Solitude. With his wife, Marguerite, and loyal chief engineer, Franklin Pope (an old colleague of Edison’s), he takes stock of the news. He asks for Edison to be invited to dinner to meet the famed inventor in person.
Now in Washington, Edison coaxes and cajoles the great financier J.P. Morgan to throw his money behind his invention. Instead, he finds himself in The White House with his wife Mary, children Dash and Dot, and his British personal secretary, Samuel Insull, showing off another invention, the Edison Phonograph. There, President Chester A. Arthur attempts to entice him to design weapons of war for the military. Edison is unequivocal. “The only device I shall never build is that which takes a human life,” he tells Arthur.
Leaving the Oval Office without the funds he’d sought, Edison unveils his plan: to light up a square mile of Manhattan with his electrical globes and six giant dynamos. Insull is instructed to set up a new enterprise — Edison Electric — in New York.
At Pittsburgh train station, Westinghouse prepares to welcome Edison and his family, only for the tired Edison to snub the engagement. Stung, Westinghouse returns to Solitude. Back at his home and laboratory Menlo Park, New Jersey Edison he learns that Morgan will fund his project after all. As Edison lights up New York’s Pearl Street in a fanfare of publicity and public clamor, Westinghouse muses over how he’ll generate enough power to expand the grid across the city using direct current. So, too, does Nikola Tesla. The Serbian immigrant — an impoverished inventor — offers his services, and his idea for alternating current (AC), to Edison. It will, he promises, send more electricity over longer distances. Edison believes AC to be too dangerous and unmanageable to harness but hires Tesla, offering him a meagre $10 a week to work at Menlo Park.
As Edison plots to expand his electricity across 12 US cities using DC, Westinghouse’s AC system successfully sends electricity a mile, lighting up the town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and outraging his rival in the process. To Edison’s annoyance, Westinghouse seems to be cracking it — and using his own invention, the bulb, too. Tesla offers to design a motor to power Edison’s own AC system but is turned down flat. Edison believes too stubbornly in his own genius to course correct. His obligations to Tesla lie in tatters. The Serb leaves to set up his own company, Tesla Electric.
Instead, Edison takes the fight to Westinghouse. He smears him in the press, and even prank calls him using his phonograph but succeeds only in redoubling his rival’s efforts. With the Westinghouse Electric Company set up, and a new patent for his system submitted, the genteel industrialist steels himself for battle.
For Edison, the only solution is to work harder and drive his men more ferociously. Then tragedy strikes: his beloved wife, Mary, falls ill and dies. The inventor, disconsolate, buries himself ever-deeper into his work, even as Westinghouse’s lighting finds favor with increasing numbers of towns around the country. Morgan counsels him to switch to AC; Edison again refuses. Seattle, Fort Worth, New Orleans… as Mary Edison is buried, city after city falls to Westinghouse’s system. Money runs low.
The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair puts Edison and Westinghouse head-to-head in a high-profile tender bid. Both seek to light up the city for the world-famous event. In the frenzy to invent a motor to boost his system, Westinghouse’s trusty engineer Pope is killed. Rumors swiftly spread that alternating current is deadly after all. After soul-searching with Marguerite, George Westinghouse resolves to overcome the loss and win the War of the Currents.
Edison, meanwhile, takes a final opportunity to discredit his rival by using a secretly-sourced Westinghouse generator to power the first electric chair. A court case is brought by Westinghouse, in which Edison claims that, while his rival’s system is dangerous, ‘Westinghousing’ is the most humane way to execute those on death row. The two men meet, finally and briefly, on the steps of the Buffalo courthouse.
Duped and defrauded by unscrupulous businessmen and reduced to digging ditches, Tesla finally meets Westinghouse in his dowdy hotel room. The two immediately hit it off, as Tesla outlines his vision for a new form of power that harnesses the energy of Niagara Falls. The like-minded men collaborate: one providing the AC system, the other the motor to magnify its power.
Using a private investigator, Westinghouse uncovers and publicizes Edison’s scheme to discredit him via the electric chair. He wins the World Fair contract — and the War of the Currents — as the execution of a murderer, William Kemmler, ends in a grizzly, headline-grabbing fiasco. Westinghouse is triumphant but remains a little-heralded figure; Edison is beaten but his fame and determination to innovate remain undimmed. He pours himself into the infant motion picture industry, setting up the Edison Motion Picture company, patenting the Kinetograph and making images dance.